‘I feel like you guys don’t care about our school’: Stege students, staff ask WCCUSD to fix 80-year-old building
on January 18, 2023
“Thirty-eight schools have better stuff than us — why do y’all always put us in the bottom?”
“Can you please help the school? Because we really need a good school because I think having a good school helps me learn.”
“I feel like you guys don’t care about our school.”
That’s what Stege Elementary School fourth graders wrote in letters to the West Contra Costa Unified School District Board last school year. Other students wrote letters, too, citing a variety of problems they wanted to see fixed: broken windows, a lack of air conditioning, chipping paint and no grass on the playground, to name a few.
According to the students’ teacher, Hannah Geitner, none of them received a response to their testimonies. Months later, Geitner said the issues her students presented in their letters remain.
Stege is a K-6 school in Richmond with a high percentage of low-income and Black students. According to WCCUSD spokesperson Liz Sanders, 39% of Stege’s student population is Black, the highest percentage of any school in the district. Stege also recently had an uptick in enrollment — according to Sanders, 210 were enrolled last school year, and 261 are enrolled this school year.
Stege was built in various stages in the 1940s and ’50s, making the building about 80 years old — among the oldest in WCCUSD.
In 2016, a critical needs project allocated $2.9 million to demolish the oldest classroom and office building at Stege and replace them with portable buildings. In a special facilities board meeting on Oct. 11, the administration made a new recommendation, to invest the money into making the most needed repairs to the existing buildings.
According to Sanders, when the Facilities Master Plan reprioritized funds to schools with the highest level of need in 2016, Wilson Elementary, now Michelle Obama Elementary, and Lake Elementary were at the top of the list, with Stege right behind them. Michelle Obama has since been rebuilt, while Lake is currently under construction.
When Measure R, a $575 million facility improvement bond, was approved in 2020, the new prioritized schools became Kennedy High School and Richmond High School, with Stege in third place again.
Geitner is frustrated with the attention being paid to other schools in the district, while Stege has yet to be repaired or remodeled.
“To be really honest, I think it’s racism,” Geitner said. “There’s just a really long history, and like a lot of things you can point to that kind of make it hard to not say it’s racism, especially because there are other Title 1 schools in the district which have been rebuilt and remodeled.”
Sanders responded that since 2016, Stege has been among the district’s top three building priorities.
“Significant needs at Kennedy and Richmond high schools have caused those schools to become higher on the list of priorities than they were,” she said. “Our current goal is to engage with our community to better understand genuine priorities across Kennedy, Richmond and Stege in order to ensure that our remaining bond funds meet the best needs of our students, families and staff.”
According to Geitner and third-grade teacher Sam Cleare, it’s not just about the way Stege looks — it’s about safety, too.
Despite having latches, many of the windows in the building don’t open, they said, and they’re so weathered and yellowed with age that they are hard to see out of. Cleare, who also is a teachers union representative, said she’s cut her hands on the broken windows, and she worries about broken glass falling on students if they aren’t replaced.
There’s no air-conditioning in the building, and with many of the windows inoperable, Geitner said classrooms can get very hot by the end of the day in warmer months, making everyone uncomfortable and making learning more challenging, especially for special education students with sensory needs.
When Stege staff spoke up about the heat, fans were installed, like ones “you would put in your college dorm room,” according to Geitner. A couple years later, they spoke up again, and more fans were installed.
“I guess it does provide some air circulation, but again, it doesn’t make the room any cooler, which is pretty frustrating because at that point, it’s just extra noise,” Geitner said.
Sanders, however, said all classrooms have operable windows, “some of which are not in the best condition and are due for replacement.” In the office and administrative area, Sanders said there are non-operable windows that need replacing.
The teachers also said the school does not have fire sprinklers, something Cleare called “very scary.”
Mold and falling tiles
With the state of the building, students and staff “feel disrespected,” Cleare said.
Sanders said that the building and fire code did not require sprinklers at the time of the building’s construction. She said a fire alarm system protects the building and is monitored 24 hours a day.
A more recent problem is mold. According to Sanders, two classrooms had issues with mold growing in storage areas.
Sonia Perez, who teaches first grade at Stege, is one of the teachers who found mold in her classroom. The first year she took the classroom was during the COVID-19 pandemic while the district was distance learning, so she didn’t notice anything. This September, however, Perez said an instructional coach noticed a patch of black behind a filing cabinet while leaning down to help a student.
“She was like, ‘Wait, what is that?’” Perez recalled. The coach took a picture with her phone and identified the black patch as mold.
Sanders said both areas where mold was found were cleaned, and that the surfaces surrounding them seemed to be in good condition, with no sign of water leaks.
According to Perez, the mold was washed and then painted over.
“I don’t know how safe it is for our students to be in there,” Perez said.
Sanders noted that the district has done the remediation and will keep monitoring to ensure no recurrence of mold.
In late October, about 10 ceiling tiles fell in a classroom, according to Geitner. She said the classroom is mostly used to store technology and no one was in the room when the tiles fell. Sanders said the tiles have since been replaced and the district has checked tiles in the other classrooms.
Geitner said it’s been hard to get school board members to see the issues at Stege, though some came for the first time this fall to look.
For Cleare, change isn’t happening quickly enough, and the state of the building is contributing to a hazardous work and learning environment. “And although it’s only my sixth year, I’ve been told that promises constantly get made and then there’s no more word,” she said.
Cleare mentioned many in the community feel Stege is being ignored, in part because it has the highest percentage of Black students in the district.
Cleare suggested that the district use funding such as the Community Schools grant — almost $30 million which the district received from the state in May — to help Stege.
“I feel like I need them to step up and make this a priority, or just be honest,” she said. “If it’s not a priority, then we’ll go from there.”
Photos taken by Stege Elementary School students
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